May 10, 2020, remotely for COVID-19

Fifth Sunday of Easter A

Beholding the Face of God

GOSPEL

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”  John 14:1-14

SERMON

In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells us that, “Now we see God thru a glass darkly, but when we die we will see God face to face.”  St. John, however, paints a very different picture for us.  For him, seeing God face to face, is both a future moment and also a now experience.  For John, death is not the gateway to a vision, a presence and an intimacy that is not possible while we are still alive. For John, heaven is a now possibility.  For heaven is not a place but a lived and living experience.

I know that this gospel about heavenly mansions is a favorite pick for funerals, but I really think we sell the good news short when we consign the joy of deep union or communion with God, dwelling with God, captured in the image of taking up residence with Him, exclusively to the afterlife. While there is some truth in those words of comfort we offer when we say that the dead are in a better place, there is also great truth that there is no better place, than to be alive in and with God right now. 

In the moments immediately preceding the conversation captured in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has gathered his disciples and washed their feet, teaching them that they should do the same for each other.  Yes, they are to find heaven, union with God, in humble servant relationships with each other.  Strange as it might seem if we want to behold the face of God we must be ready and willing to look at some feet.

Today’s Gospel is the beginning of what is referred to as the Farewell Discourse of Jesus. It is patterned on a certain form of writing that is found in other places in the bible. Patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, on their deathbeds, bequeathed their stuff and their wisdom to their progeny. Jesus has no stuff to leave; instead he gives his disciples,  “the power to do even greater works than He himself did”!  

In the affirming words of Peter in today’s second lesson, “We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we may proclaim, in the things we do, the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”.

Today’s gospel begins with those famous words of Jesus, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”. He caps it with the promise that he would take his disciples to himself, so that wherever he is, we would also be.  Again, the place, of which Jesus speaks, is not a geographic destination. The place and the promise is that of full presence and total intimacy.  “I am in you and you are in me, just as I am in the Father and the Father is in me”.  Can it really get any better than that?

Thomas, asks a fair question. On the heels of Jesus’ eloquent words about abiding places and obscure travel plans, Thomas, in a voice that I imagine to be somewhat weary, but not yet despairing, cuts to the chase: 

“We have no idea what you’re talking about, first of all, and second of all, upon what basis should we have known what you are talking about?” 

And here the critical moment arrives for Thomas, and the rest, in the form of another one of the seven “I Am” statements found only in John’s gospel.  

The disciples are groping around aimlessly for a path, a truth, a life, and THE path, THE truth, and THE life is staring them in the face and they can’t or won’t see it.  The critical moment arrives for us as well.  THE path, THE truth, and THE life is staring us in the face. Can we see it?  Will we see it? 

They are looking for, as we may be looking for seven habits of successful people, nine steps to forgiveness, or ten commandments by which to live.  These days we are looking for the path that will return us to life as we once knew it. 

But the answer, as Jesus proposes, lies in our intimate, if confusing and challenging, relationships – the preeminent relationship being between Jesus and them; Jesus and us; and then us with each other.  In this critical moment Jesus calls Thomas into a future that is wholly dependent upon a relationship with Jesus that is fully realized in relationships of humble service to others.  

Our path thru these dark and disorienting days is the very same. Our relationship with Christ is our most powerful antidote to fear and despair.  Our servant relationships to others, invests this time of trial with awesome possibilities for personal and communal transformation toward our becoming more completely whole and more wonderfully holy.  

Jesus also stops Thomas from complaining about all the reasons he would give for his ignorance, “This is hard; how are we supposed to know?  We don’t get it.” Jesus doesn’t settle for that, but he calls Thomas out—“I am it; I am the real deal; surely you know me. In that case, you know all you need to know”.  

Thomas was fixated on “the way,” and his sense that Jesus hadn’t provided full and necessary information related to it. 

Now Philip, for his part, is concerned with seeing the Father. As he did with Thomas, Jesus says to Philip–look in front of your face. The answer is not in some mysterious code, nor is it hidden in some far off place where you cannot reach it; no, the Father, His Christ, and the Spirit, all of it is here and available right now. 

Philip thinks he’s asking a very concrete, simple question: “Just show us the Father and we’re good to go.” Not too pushy, no long list. And how does Jesus respond? Again, there comes a critical moment. Jesus challenges Philip.   How long will it take for you to understand that my only purpose in relating to you guys is exactly for the purpose of manifesting the essence of God?  That essence, the very face of God that you seek is revealed in the deep, self giving, life giving, embarrassingly intimate, washing the feet, servant relationship that I have lovingly forged with you? 

Jesus often asks this question, “What or whom do you seek?” He knows that what we seek often determines what we find. The gospel points out that everything for which we actually deeply hope is available to us right here and now, we just don’t see it or won’t see it. 

Those who are “left behind” when Jesus goes to the Father have an advantage beyond all telling. Because Jesus goes, they get power they wouldn’t otherwise get. Instead of wannabes, they’ll be the real deal. They’ll be Christ  in and to the world.  They are worried about letting go, but with the letting go comes the gift.   Letting go of a fixation with heaven up there, makes possible an embrace of heaven right here.  

 

Yes, death and letting go are hard and those left behind cannot easily imagine anything worthwhile, coming out of loss. And yet it is only when we are ready and willing to loose all that we come to possess all.   The kingdom of God is ours for the seeking, the finding and the taking.  The dwelling place that Jesus has prepared for us is ready for occupancy.  Move in, for God’s sake and for your own sakes.  Get out the basin and the water and look for the feet to be washed.

 

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna

May 10, 2020